I’m in Mongolia, it’s 2076, and I digitise flowers for a living.
Cradle’s developers want you to feel dislocated and they’ve succeeded, and then some. The developers compare the game to a David Lynch film: they’re presenting you with the environment and leaving you to piece together the story yourself.
And when the pieces are an armour-plated bird with a lotus flower in its chest, a mechanical woman whose body parts are protected by vicious virtual spiders, and a giant scrapyard filled with three-story high children’s slides, I can’t wait to find out what the final picture looks like.
It might make a little more sense to learn that Cradle’s being made by three ex-Stalker devs, Tolmachev was the art director for Clear Sky and Call of Pripyat, so it’s to be expected that the game would be a bleak, outlandish world. It’s something else, though, it’s somehow familiar. Despite it’s setting and its surreal architecture, because of it, even, it has a dreamlike quality that you’ll recognise. The places may be new, the characters, too, but the essence of it is something you’ll know.
Cradle’s an odd game. The aim is to explore the surreal environment to try and work out not only the story of what happened to the world but also what your character’s place is in it. It’s closest cousin is Dear Esther, another game where you’re trusted to work out what’s going on. Unlike Dear Esther, though, which really had you simply walk through the environment connecting up the scenery to the voiceover, Cradle is a lot more interactive.
You start the game in your home, a Mongolian yurt filled with clutter, both bits of futuristic tech, like a gene purity meter, and contemporary. There’s a shrine to Buddha with pictures of your family pinned over its facade. It can all be picked up and examined. Looking at the pictures of your family has your character say who’s in the photos and how he feels about them. You can light the candles on the shrine or start taking purity readings off of objects about the tent.
The developers want you to engage with the world and they’re doing it by giving every object some little bit of text. The game’s lead designer, Ilya Telmachov, says that all the text weaves into the bigger picture. It’s like a 3D point’n’click adventure where the puzzle is solving the world’s back story.
You’re not alone in your tent. There’s a broken down android and it’s on you to piece her back together, finding the missing parts and repairing the broken ones, gradually bringing her back to life. With each restored piece she is able to tell you more about the world you live in. Explain something about the event which turned the world into the one you see outside your tent. Some of her pieces can be found around the tent and its gardens but for the most part you’ll need to beat the spiders.
Tolmachev loaded up a room which looks like a digital padded cell. In the centre is a pulsing cone of light. The walls and floor are made of bright coloured cubes which you can yank out of position and place elsewhere, reshaping the room. If you tear up the cubes in the floor, though, you’ll reveal more rooms below, it’s a tower of stacked rooms shot through with this same pulsating light. You score points by pulling out blue cubes and throwing them into the light. However, throwing blue cubes into the light can also spawn big, red virtual spiders.
The challenge is reaching cubes in the different stacked rooms while also dodging the spiders you’re spawning. The longer you get into this minigame the more unstable the tower becomes with more holes in the floor and more spiders to avoid. Your reward for collecting enough cubes is a part of the android’s body.
Connecting your yurt to that virtual place are the Mongolian steppes. You leave your tent to find a vast, green valley. Cutting through the plane is a strange set of pylons. They look they’ve been pieced together by scrap metal and at regular intervals, hanging from the wire, are barn door-sized horseshoes. It’s a track for a floating monorail. You’ll meet the driver, another android, and from him, too, learn more about the world and the event. More pieces to this strange puzzle.
It’s here on the plain that you make your living as a flower digitiser. You’ll need to take your gene purity metre out onto the steppes and start searching for the prettiest flowers.
This idea of gene purity infects the game. In this version of our future society has developed down a path that not only glorifies beauty but quantifies it. For instance, your business is selling digitised versions of flowers, you’ll go into your flower garden with the gene meter, scan the red crocuses and find they’ve a score out of 100. If it’s a high score you pick the plant and place it into the digitiser where it is printed out on what looks like cellophane. The more pure the flower the more it is worth.
All major objects have a value. The android in your tent; 74. The monorail driver; 32. Even the bird with a hallow chest that comes to pick up digitised lotus flowers from your garden… yes, Cradle is a strange game.
Cradle aims to be a strange game, it wants to intrigue you by alienating you, and in that it’s certainly succeeded: I want to spend a week with the game, exploring the world and piecing together its story. But, while I think it will be a fascinating game, and one that will appeal to fans of Dear Esther, I don’t know if it will be enjoyable to play. Most your interaction with the world looks to be reading notes from the developer or clicking on identical flowers to work out which is genetically prettier. That’s not playing in the world but inspecting it. The cube game could change that but, even then, it seems quite separate from the main game. Tolmachev even said it was put in to give the players a break from the logical interpretations of the larger game.
I expect some players will simply bounce off Cradle when they play it. However, others, like David Lynch fans, will be discussing its finer points on forums for years to come.
Flying Cafe for Semianimals hope to release Cradle by Christmas but events in Ukraine may delay that.